Executive Master of Healthcare Administration program celebrates 50 years

October 21, 2019

“I am today allocating $3,000 in State Appropriations to match the Federal Grant obtained for developing the off-campus master’s program to be offered in Raleigh. This is an experimental program that is to be tried out for the first year, and at the end of the first year it should be evaluated before it is continued for a second year.”
— Dr. Jacob Koomen, State Health Director, July 29, 1969

In 1969, leaders at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health got a request from State Health Director Jacob Koomen. Could they, he wondered, invent an advanced education curriculum for North Carolina county health directors — and deliver it remotely across the 100-county state?

EMP students work together during a campus visit.

EMP students work together during a campus visit.

The answer, of course, was “yes.” This year, that program celebrates its 50th anniversary and its evolution from a state-focused distance education program to a global online enterprise with students from Canada, Germany, Mexico and further afield.

In the beginning, the Gillings School’s Department of Health Policy and Management, which is home to what is now known as the Executive Master of Healthcare Administration (EMP) program, sent instructors out to Raleigh, N.C., to teach classes for county health directors.

As interest in the program increased, they traveled further afield — to Asheville in the mountains and Wilmington on the coast — using UNC’s private plane to visit students. Soon enough, an extended campus stay was added to the program. Participants traveled to Chapel Hill for 6-7 weeks each summer to get hands-on experience at the School of Public Health.

Finally, technology caught up with academic ambition. The Internet arrived, and the program moved fully online in 2000, with developers creating a custom digital learning hub long before the existence of Blackbaud or Sakai. In fact, the program was a harbinger of things to come: one of the earliest online master’s degrees.

Now, the EMP is a 2-year, 49-credit hour degree program that consistently is ranked in the top three by U.S. News & World Report and Modern Healthcare.

Bill Gentry

Bill Gentry

Dr. Jim Porto

Dr. Jim Porto

“We average 35-45 students per cohort these days” says Bill Gentry, MPA, an associate professor of health policy and management who has served as director of the EMP program for five years. “We’ve had students from around the world, including India and the Philippines. If you want to manage a hospital, physician’s group or health care nonprofit, this is the perfect program for you. The Master of Healthcare Administration is a very targeted, highly recognizable degree that confers all the skills required to excel in the field.”

Students include physicians, clinicians and pharmacists who want to move into management — and even some attorneys who want to practice health care law. In synchronous sessions, they learn about how to measure the success of an enterprise and improve it; about health care insurance and finance (a rapidly evolving topic); and about strategy, marketing, leadership and health economics.

“It really is a health care MBA,” Gentry says. “Students gain everything they need to run a health care organization in today’s climate.”

An EMP cohort celebrates at graduation.

An EMP cohort celebrates at graduation.

“From the beginning, we wanted to be of service to working professionals who had families and full-time jobs,” adds James Porto, Jr., PhD, an adjunct assistant professor of health policy and management who oversaw EMP for 30 years before retiring. “Our students have to have at least three years of relevant experience before joining us, and their assessments note that — because of this — they learn as much from each other as from the faculty. We truly build a community, too, although we’re not together physically. The proof is in the fact that more than 90% of our applicants find us via another alum’s personal recommendation, and alumni make a real effort to stay engaged after they graduate.”

Faculty, students, staff and alumni of the program will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Oct. 25 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The keynote speaker is William Zelman, PhD, professor emeritus of health policy and management.

“Bill has taught in this program longer than anyone,” Gentry says. “Across cohorts, whenever EMP students gather, his name comes up and his class is regarded fondly. We thought he could speak better than anyone about why this program is so unique, and out true belief that lifelong learning is more than a buzzword.”


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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